Building the Bad Boys

First part in a weeklong celebration of Jack McCloskey, who will be honored Mar. 29 at The Palace
Jack McCloskey has been off the job for 13 years. Not that you’d know it to talk to him. Eighty-two years old and enjoying a quiet retirement in Georgia? Perhaps until the phone rings. It’s not long before Trader Jack is on the line.

“No one in the business makes panic moves,” McCloskey says firmly over the telephone. His statements are certain, closed to interpretation. You get the impression he could break down every trade, every draft pick he made in 12 seasons as general manager of the Detroit Pistons and leave you absolutely convinced, yes, it had to be done. This is how you build a champion.

How could you trade a franchise legend your second month on the job? “It really wasn’t a big problem with me…” How could you trade your leading scorer in midseason? What about chemistry? “…Our chemistry was not good.” McCloskey, hired from the Indiana Pacers’ coaching staff on Dec. 11, 1979, closed a chapter in Pistons history when he traded center Bob Lanier, then the team’s all-time leading scorer, to the Milwaukee Bucks on Feb. 4, 1980. Nine years and 11 days later, he shipped Adrian Dantley to Dallas for another high-scoring forward, Mark Aguirre. Between deals McCloskey transformed Detroit’s perennial underachiever into a basketball phenomenon, beloved by fans and loathed by foes. The midseason trades were more than bold moves. They were the bookends to McCloskey’s master plan.

“You make decisions that you’ve thought through,” he continues. “There has to be a foundation for that. You make panic moves, you’re going to be in trouble.” McCloskey’s principled nature helped him endure those nightmarish nights in Boston and Los Angeles, when sure victory had unraveled before his eyes. Undeterred by despair, McCloskey stayed the course and completed the Pistons’ ascendance to back-to-back NBA championships. Reaching the summit took nine years, making the 1980s a testament to McCloskey’s vision and patience. Trouble? Surprisingly little - kind of ironic for a guy who put together a bunch of Bad Boys.

“You figure, Start our own climb”

A man whose basketball knowledge was respected throughout the NBA - he was head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers from 1972-74 - McCloskey was an outsider to Detroit, making him the perfect choice to undertake the Pistons’ reconstruction. He had no qualms about cutting ties to the past, even the legendary Lanier. In the midst of a 16-win season, the worst in team history, McCloskey dealt Lanier to Milwaukee for a 25-year-old center, Kent Benson, and a first-round draft pick.

“Bob was getting older, he had some injuries,” McCloskey recalled. “It really wasn’t a big problem with me moving him because we got a young player and we got a draft pick. Even with Bob Lanier we wouldn’t win too many games so you figure you might as well start with a young guy and get some draft picks and start our own climb.”

McCloskey prepared for the ascent with a flurry of trades, but he still needed to find a leader for the expedition, which he planned to do with the No. 2 pick in the 1981 draft. It didn’t take an extensive scouting report for McCloskey to conclude Isiah Thomas, a diminutive point guard who had led Indiana University to the NCAA title, was his choice. “I saw him play in college and I can’t recall who they played but I said to myself later and wrote in my notes, he played almost a perfect game,” he said. “And I felt his leadership qualities were immense.”

The Pistons’ future would meet its past in the 1981-82 season opener, when Lanier and the Bucks visited the Pontiac Silverdome. Thomas scored 31 points with 11 assists in his debut, a 118-113 Pistons victory. McCloskey’s choice of Kelly Tripucka, a scoring forward from Notre Dame, with the No. 12 pick raised considerably more eyebrows. By the time Tripucka set a Pistons rookie record with 49 points on Mar. 12, 1982, he already had proved his worth. The two rookies were both named to the East All-Star team.

The Pistons were 7-4 on Nov. 21 when McCloskey struck again, dealing Greg Kelser to Seattle for third-year guard Vinnie Johnson, whom the Pistons GM had been eyeing for some time. “Vinnie was a guy who in college, he was a rapid scorer and I always felt someone like that coming off the bench would be very productive for us,” he said. Johnson would serve as the Pistons’ sixth man that season and the next nine, averaging a starter-like 13.8 points per game.

“It’s the one thing I look for”

You don’t get a nickname like “Trader Jack” by letting the trading deadline pass quietly. Minutes shy of midnight on Feb. 16, 1982, McCloskey acquired forward Kenny Carr. He played 28 games with the Pistons. The other Cavalier acquired in the deal, center Bill Laimbeer, stayed in Detroit a tad longer - 1,050 games. “He was playing with Cleveland and I felt this is a guy, he’s a competitor, a great competitor, and you can’t get enough of those people on your team,” McCloskey said of Laimbeer, now the Pistons’ career rebounding leader. “And it’s the one thing that I look for when looking at players, how competitive they are. I think our team ended up as one of the great competitive teams that has ever been in existence.”

McCloskey’s new charges cobbled together a 39-43 record in 1981-82. But the team didn’t gel the next year, winning two fewer games. Thomas and Laimbeer nevertheless received All-Stars nods and Tripucka was the league’s No. 3 scorer at 26.5 points per game. On Jan. 29, Tripucka scored a franchise-high 56 points in a victory over the Bulls, topping Dave Bing’s milestone mark of 54. Scoring wasn’t the Pistons’ problem - stopping opponents was. So McCloskey fired head coach Scotty Robertson for someone more like himself. He found Chuck Daly, who, like McCloskey, was once the head coach at Penn, struggled terribly in his first NBA head coaching job (Daly was 9-32 with Cleveland in 1981-82) and preached defense first. “I felt his demeanor and his presence would be good for this team that was so intense and so competitive,” McCloskey said. “It would be a good fit.”

In 1983-84, Daly guided essentially the same 37-win roster to a 49-33 record, one game out of the Central Division title. Thomas, an All-NBA First Teamer, blossomed on the biggest of stages, winning the first of two All-Star Game MVP awards. But he saved his best for the games that mattered. In the decisive Game 5 of the Pistons’ first-round series against the New York Knicks - the team’s first postseason appearance in seven years - Thomas scored 16 points in the last 94 seconds of regulation to force overtime, where the Knicks ultimately prevailed.

Even before Thomas’ theatrics, Detroit sports fans had taken notice of the up-and-coming team at the Pontiac Silverdome. The 1983-84 season was the first of five consecutive years the Pistons led the NBA in attendance. McCloskey had noticed his team’s rise, too. But to continue the climb, difficult decisions would have to be made.

“I think a lot of teams get stuck in the middle. They’ve got a pretty good team and their draft picks are not as good and they languish in the middle of the pack,” McCloskey said. “Unless you make some trades, you’re going to stay there for a long time.”

Read how McCloskey put the final pieces of the Bad Boys together Wednesday at